FC Gifu are garnering a lot more column inches this season, and a local English fan is doing his best to ensure the coverage goes further afield than just the Japanese-speaking community… (日本語版はこちらです：http://www.footballchannel.jp/2014/02/28/post28605/)
All eyes – well, more than usual at least – are on FC Gifu this season thanks to the recruitment of Ruy Ramos as head coach and the headline-grabbing signings of former Japan internationals Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi and Alessandro Santos.
Those paying attention to J2’s perennial strugglers in 2014 will include an ever-growing community of English-speaking J.League fans thanks to an unprecedented set-up between the club and a local blogger.
Stuart Smith, a 31-year-old English teacher who lives in the region, started to post information, updates, and news about FC Gifu to his ‘We Are Gifu’ site around the end of 2012, and has seen interest grow steadily since.
He initially thought his posts would only appeal to the foreign fans with an interest in the J.League who followed him on Twitter (@sushi_football). The Grimsby native soon found that Japanese supporters were also paying attention though, and that has led to the club recognizing him as their official provider of English-language news.
“I know the PR guy in the club and know that this year Gifu have been all over the news,” Smith explained to me of the development. “I said to them, ‘if you need any help with any promotion in English just let me know.’”
One meeting in a family restaurant later and the club made it clear they were happy to take him up on his offer, with a banner being posted to the official FC Gifu page one evening in early February.
“On a good day there’d be 40, maybe 50 people viewing – on a quiet day there’d be no-one, maybe two or three diehards,” he recalls of the traffic the site used to muster. “On the first full day of [the link being on the official site] there was about 650, 700 which was a bit weird.”
That surge in interest mirrors that of the club in general as the new season approaches. Ramos’ charisma ensured the Gifu booth at the J.League’s season-launching Kick Off Conference was crowded with journalists last week, and the former Japan international was as entertaining as ever, (perhaps only half-)joking about the expected sellout on the opening day of the season. “That’s thanks to me, of course,” he asserted to much laughter. “If I wasn’t here Kawaguchi and the rest wouldn’t come!”
Smith provided further evidence of the magnetism of the new arrivals. “The open training sessions are kind of full,” he said. “There’s a load of spectators who go down to watch because of Ramos, Kawaguchi, Santos; it’s the holy trinity of big names.”
Having watched Gifu since the end of 2010 the Grimsby Town fan knows as well as anyone that such excitement is far from the norm for the club, and he is quietly confident for the season ahead.
“It could spectacularly blow up in their faces but if you can’t be positive now then you can’t be positive at any time,” he said. “I’m quite optimistic to be honest.
“There’s a lot of new players, sure, but there’s a lot of experience there and experience at J2 level counts for quite a bit. I’m relatively hopeful of a good start because they’ve got Kamatamare Sanuki first up and then they’ve got a home game against Kataller Toyama the next week. Even last year they should have been looking at winning those kind of games but particularly this year.
“I think within the club they know that there’s a great chance to get off to a good start and they’re expecting a record crowd for the first game against Kamatamare. They’re hoping for 12,000 plus at that game, I know that for a fact. If they win their first home game then a lot of people will be wanting to go to the second game as well. And Toyama’s not that far so they always bring a decent following as well.”
Success on the pitch will only lead to more interest off it, and Smith is hopeful that ‘We are Gifu’ will evolve to provide more and more information from behind the scenes as well as on the stands at Nagaragawa.
“I know for a fact that there are six or seven of the first team squad members who speak English really well,” he said. “Obviously that’s the foreign contingent but also Japanese players who’ve played abroad – so Yuki Nakamura, the striker who was in Eastern Europe, Hirofumi Moriyasu, who used to play for Sydney…
“For me that would be interesting, and for the English-language speakers who are interested in the J.League it would probably be interesting as well.”
For the time being he is trying not to get too carried away though and his focus is just on raising the profile of FC Gifu, helping previously unaware fans get to the stadium, and hopefully then enjoying some victories once they are there.
“Around here there are varying degrees of optimism. There are people who think that a play-off place is attainable, which I’m not really on-board with, but I think anything around mid-table would be progress for Gifu. Just something so they’re not fighting against relegation and relying on other teams to do them favours.
“Anything around mid-table would be really good for Gifu this year and it would give them something to build on in subsequent years.”